Monday, October 30, 2006

Fair Trade Coffee

We have bought Fair Trade coffee for ... well, as long as I can remember, and for some years, we have also avoided buying Nestlé products (and those of various other large corporations), on account of the questions that have been raised and not convincingly answered about their ethical standards. It's surprising how widely the tentacles of Nestlé reach. We eat supermarkets' own versions of KitKats, Shreddies and yoghurts. For that matter, we avoid artificial sweeteners and preservatives (which basically means buying High-Juice squash, and greatly restricts our options on fizzy soft drinks), limit our consumption of "junk" food, and try and keep an eye on the distance that food has travelled.

For people who are starting to get more concerned about ethics, I would recommend "The Rough Guide to Ethical Shopping" and the soon-to-be-published "The Rough Guide to Ethical Living". These are realistic books - they accept that we are part of a society in which it is hard to examine the consequences of all your actions, and that people draw the line at different points, and that in any case debates about ethics are rarely clearly one-sided.

For example, some people argue that Fair Trade coffee, by distorting the market and highlighting a particular weak area, are serving to prevent reforms. For us, from a Christian point of view, our choice is an extension of James' writing on behaviour:
Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?"
This was written in relation to the way Christians treat other believers - but whilst they are a "special case", the general principle that Jesus sets out is that we have to think about how we treat "our neighbour" - which in days of globalization, can mean anybody in the whole world!

Others argue from "Sabbath" principles - and the fact that God's plan was that humans should rest for one day in seven - a pattern which I believe has shown itself to be good for humans throughout history. The idea behind the Sabbath was that not only the people of Israel were to enjoy rest, but also their animals, servants and the alien within their gate (Deuteronomy 5:12). This "compassion" for workers is now embedded in our society - an aspect of social concern from our Christian heritage that people probably don't think about - in the form of guaranteed holidays and days off - most people in the Europe and North America only have to work five days in seven, rather than six! But if I am paying so little for something that I buy or use that the person who supplies it isn't paid fairly for their time, and has to work 16 hour days and 7 day weeks to make ends meet, then I am failing to treat them with dignity or compassion.

One of the principle objections to Fair Trade coffee is "I don't like the taste". This is really not a compelling objection. In most cases, the first time that most people drank coffee, they "didn't like the taste" - but they got used to it, because they wanted the caffeine, or because they enjoyed the social side of coffee-drinking. There are several answers. The first is: get used to it! The people who are making the coffee don't have the luxury of consumer choice of brands - they hope for basic facilities, healthcare and education for their children. Choosing coffee which seeks to guarantee these things but doesn't taste quite as nice is a small price to pay for what it offers the people who make it.

Secondly: go and investigate the options. There is probably nearly as wide a variety of fairly traded filter coffee as there is of non-FT. I seriously doubt that most consumers who say "I don't like the taste" have seriously attempted to find a FT filter coffee they like. Few will even have investigated a range of instant coffees.

Finally: how was it made? The problem in a lot of cases is that FT instant coffee is used at worthy places - churches, social clubs - where they use half the amount of coffee that we would at home and skimmed or watered-down milk. Try making a FT cuppa with the amount of coffee you'd use at home, with the same sort of milk that you'd use at home. It wouldn't surprise me if it turned out just as palatable as your cup of instant coffee at home.

Both Nestlé and Kenco have made attempts to make themselves appear more ethical in coffee terms. For example, Nestlé have their "Partners" blend; Kenco (which is actually a Kraft brand) have a "Sustainable Development" coffee that they talk about here. (Incidentally the "independent, not-for-profit" Rainforest Alliance that the Kraft press release talks about acknowledges that they have a relationship with Kraft here). Personally, I would be gravely unhappy about buying these products. The concept of a multinational corporation having one coffee brand that is tagged as "ethical" but thirty that aren't to me simply underlines the fact that these corporations want to appear to be part of this, whilst continuing in fundamental indifference to their producers.